I was in my late adolescence, studying English literature and beginning to try to write in earnest, when I was given one of Denton Welch’s books. The cover would not have pulled me in. It was one of the author’s paintings, two full male forms stripped to bathe in a river, and seen from the back, one relaxed on the bank, another pulling himself out. It was placed in my hands by one of the most beautiful men I have ever known, a mentor to me. Why not read the man who had inspired William Burroughs, the author to whom Burroughs dedicated his book The Place of Dead Roads?
A true artist could make anything into something. That was one of the things that Burroughs admired about Welch.
He had “a very special way of seeing,” wrote Burroughs. Welch proves unusual among British authors of his day, wanting in part to shock, announcing clearly his longing to gaze on the male physique, but writing, just as often, of the perfect little antique find.
Welch spent much of his adult life in severe pain, a result of being knocked off his bike by a motorist at the age of 20. Confined frequently to bed, he wrote novels, journals, and poems. He created frontispieces and chapter designs for his books. He had long had a type, and in Eric Oliver, he found an appealing correspondent for his letters. (“I have written three poems for you, may I, later, if I publish them, put your name or initials at the top?” he asks on January 30, 1943.) Then later:
“Did you go about Friday without a shirt? You will soon add to the brown which you have kept from last year. I also want to go out and sit in the fields with no clothes on, as I did last year. I do hope you will be near here in the summer, so that we can go down to the river together.” (Wednesday, March 21, 1944)
The correspondence between the two men, collected in Good Night, Beloved Comrade: The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, edited by Daniel J. Murtaugh, begins with Welch telling Eric how to retrace his steps to Welch’s place, and signing off sincerely. The Second World War was in progress. Oliver was a conscientious objector, by some accounts, and working the land as his contribution (he was exempted from active service because of his high blood pressure). The letters range over the years (1943 to 1947) from “your true friend” to “your very sincere” to “affectionately,” through fraught holidays and birthday celebrations, to concocting pet names (Bearded-Queen-Bee-D, Lobster, Piece of Fruit), through the lightness to the pain, to closings of “love.” A German V-2 rocket destroys Eric’s hostel. He calls upon Denton for lodging, and the arrangement becomes more permanent.
“Strange that you should mention cycling on and leaving me behind. I thought at the time that you didn’t notice what you’d done, & at first I felt a bit annoyed with you (and myself because I couldn’t keep up and had to pant along behind). I don’t know whether I looked sulky, but I quickly saw it was nothing to do with me whether you went on ahead or kept with me.” (April 11, 1944)
The relationship was likely Welch’s only intimate one, and compromised though it was, it was also sustaining.
“I went on thinking of you. I wanted to tell you how much you help me when you see I’m low and try to pull me round. No one’s ever done it before.” (Monday, May 15, 1944, 9 p.m.)
Admirably wide-eyed in the majority of the writings published during his lifetime, Welch’s great theme was the lost paradise of a boyhood that he could find again only in words. It was Oliver’s graces that would lead to posthumous publishing, including A Voice Through a Cloud, Welch’s crowning achievement.
Good Night, Beloved Comrade: The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver is available now through the University of Wisconsin Press. Douglas A. Martin is the author of Outline of My Lover, Branwell, and Acker, available in August through Nightboat Books.
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